Last month’s spaghetti with clams recipe got me thinking about neighbors. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, we had the kind of neighbors you’d share a stoop with on summer nights, killing time waiting for the ice cream truck to pass (at least, that’s what I was waiting for). Our stoop mates were Mr. Joe and Marie upstairs, and Helen and Tony downstairs. We shared a three-family house with them until I was seven. They were in their sixties and seventies at the time, but the age difference meant nothing. They were my friends. Tony and I, in particular, were great buddies. He was one of those retired guys who turned stoop-sitting into a way of life. I’d climb the living room couch every day to look out the window for his white, combed-over head. Everyone from the pigeons to the neighborhood kids knew Tony, and we were always happy to see him.
Although Tony talked to every kid on our block, I liked to believe I was special. For one, we shared a stoop. That had to mean something. And our close proximity meant more face time, which I figured also won me extra points. I was desperate to be his favorite friend. His best friend, even. He’d tell me stories about his son in Florida, where he planned to move one day to be with his grandkids. I secretly hated those grandkids, wondering if he’d rather be with them all those times he hung out with me. I worried I was just a kid fill-in. Sometimes I’d promise myself I wouldn’t go out there for a week just to see if he’d miss me. Would he ask where I’d been? Would he say the stoop hadn’t been the same without me? But it never lasted. I couldn’t resist running out the door every time I saw him on those steps.
Most of our time was spent feeding pigeons. There were tricks, he’d tell me. You can’t just throw bread onto the sidewalk, all willy nilly. To start, you had to break the bread down to the right size. Too big and the pigeons couldn’t hold the pieces in their beak. Too small and it turned to dust. Make the hunks the size of nickels. And don’t toss your whole supply at once. Sprinkle a little at a time. When one batch is almost done, sprinkle some more. That’s how they’ll get to know you. You have to stand there with the bread bag and talk to the pigeons while they’re eating. They’ll look up at you when supplies are low. Then—and only then—should you throw more. Make sure they see that you’re the one with the food. That way, they won’t forget you.
On the few nice days when Tony didn’t feel like sitting outside, he’d leave a bag of bread on the bottom step. I liked to believe it was for me—that it was our secret handshake of sorts. But I never actually used it since I wasn’t allowed to sit outside alone. And, anyway, those days were rare; Tony was usually there, warming the steps, and if he wasn’t talking to me or the other kids he had a little circle going with Helen, Marie, and Mr. Joe. I’d sit with them, even on those days, nodding and laughing at whatever they talked about. They complained a lot—about the careless teenage cashiers at CTown, about the new hair colors Helen tried that looked nothing like the picture on the box, about heartburn and blood pressure. Mr. Joe was hard of hearing, so everything he said came out in a holler. “IT’S LIKE THEY PUT THE EGGS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BAG ON PURPOSE.”
I couldn’t believe how long they could go on talking about things like groceries (“SHORT RIBS WERE ON SALE, BUT YOU DON’T WANT THAT—THE MEAT IS GREASY”), TV (“I am so tired of that weatherman who always says partly cloudy/partly sunny”), and similarly fascinating topics (“You know you can go to the podiatrist and they’ll cut your nails for you. You shouldn’t bend down like that!”). They included me in their conversations, or, at least, they didn’t tell me to go away. They just kept talking, I fed the pigeons when I could, and they watched for traffic when I sprinted to the curb for ice cream.
I thought their mundane conversations were brilliant. Who would think to care about the placement of eggs in the grocery bag? And who knew people could bond over such a thing as toenails? I had yet to engage in the pleasures of everyday venting with friends, but my stoop-mates made me excited about the prospect. I never knew what to talk about with people. They made it look so easy.
Things started to change right before we moved to New Jersey. Mr. Joe died of a heart attack on an unassuming summer afternoon. Our apartment didn’t feel right without the hum of his evening news blaring through the ceiling. Marie stayed upstairs for a little while, then moved away to be near her kids. Helen and Tony stuck with their apartment for a good five years after we left. We’d still see Tony out on the stoop when we came back to visit my grandparents. Tony and I were excited as ever to see each other, but something was lost from our pigeon days, when we could sit in silence and just be pals. Now it was, “Oh, you got so tall,” that sort of conversation. They did make it to Florida, where Tony lived another decade with his grandkids. Helen is still there, in her nineties now. She and my grandmother share the occasional gossip when they call for holidays. And she always asks about us.
My grandparents still live across the street but our old house was sold. It’s strange seeing complete strangers in those windows, curtained in fabric we never would have chosen. And in all the years they’ve lived there, they’ve never embraced the house’s biggest selling point: that shared stoop. It just sits there, empty, waiting for someone to warm it up.